By Gioia Diliberto
February 07, 1983 12:00 PM

Theirs is a fairy-tale romance. The handsome, athletic son of French film idol Jean-Paul Belmondo and the lovely, coltish daughter of Monaco’s Princess Grace met in October 1981 at a posh private club in Paris, Élysées-Matignon, and within a few months Paul Belmondo and Princess Stephanie became virtually inseparable. Lately they’ve been together every day, tooling around Paris in Paul’s fire-engine-red Renault, talking for hours at the Grimaldis’ comfortable Avenue Foch town house and cooking spaghetti dinners for friends at the Belmondos’ Left Bank apartment. To concerned friends of the Grimaldi family, Paul, 19, seems Stephanie’s best hope of recovery from her mother’s death. Observes Nadia Lacoste, the palace’s press attache “I think Stephanie is pretty lucky that she fell for a boy like Paul.”

But now their idyll will be interrupted. On Feb. 1—Stephanie’s 18th birthday—Paul begins a year of compulsory service in the French Army. His ambition is to become a Formula One race car driver, and after two months in a tough boot camp he will be allowed to compete in the Renault Formula Races under a special sportsman’s dispensation. Understandably Stephanie is not enthused about the sport; the physical wounds she sustained in the car crash that killed her mother months ago have healed, but the emotional trauma lingers. Paul, who lived in the hospital room next to Stephanie’s all during her recuperation, will not let her fears weaken his resolve to drive professionally. “The only thing that will stop me is if I’m not talented enough,” he insists. “It is perhaps an act of egoism. But if I didn’t do it, I’d always regret it. I’d rather fail at it than not do it.” But he has a philosophy for overcoming difficult moments: “I’m optimistic and realistic at the same time. If you don’t dream a little, it’s rather sad. You should always want something you can’t have. It gives you a goal.”

Two weeks ago the couple had a last fling of sorts at Val-d’Isère, the popular French ski resort. An early riser, Paul let Stephanie sleep in while he jogged and then hit the slopes with pals such as former Olympic champion Jean-Claude Killy. Later Paul spent a few hours skiing the gentler slopes with Stephanie. After lunch at a sports bar, they skied a few more runs, he worked out in the gym, and they headed for the sauna. “He doesn’t need the name Belmondo, nor a fast car, nor a princess to succeed in life,” says Killy. “Paul has the capacity to see ahead—which is very rare for his age.”

At night the couple were subdued, forgoing nightclubs to spend quiet evenings visiting Killy’s chalet. Stephanie played Scrabble with Jean-Claude’s father, Robert, and Paul talked about car racing with his friends. “You’d think they’d been together a long time,” says Killy. “They’re like an old couple. Paul is so at ease with Stephanie, so attentive and gentle. It is very touching.”

In romance, as in most things, Paul is very much his father’s son. Both men have a taste for beautiful women and physical risk. Jean-Paul has always refused stuntmen for his adventure films, insisting on performing even such feats as wrestling a tiger and switching from a helicopter to a biplane in midair. Now Paul, who learned how to drive at age 9, sitting on his father’s knee while the elder Belmondo took the wheel, has his sights set on someday winning Formula One races. “My father always says that his biggest regret is that he never pushed me harder toward tennis,” Paul says with a laugh.

Paul’s ambitions are not entirely farfetched. After one month last fall at a driving school near Marseilles, he beat out 220 classmates to win first prize in the students’ final competition. Next April he will turn pro, appearing in 12 contests. He is sponsored by Elf, the French oil company, and the Alfred Winfield School. “He has a lot of passion,” notes Elf spokesman Jean-Marie Dumazer. “But he’s very young, and we’ll have to see how he does this season. Time will tell.”

Success is a Belmondo family tradition. The grandson and namesake of a respected French sculptor, Paul was born in Paris and moved to London with his mother, Elodie, and two older sisters in 1968 after his parents divorced. At 11, Paul moved back to his father’s Paris apartment, where he lives today. He attended the private École Alfred de Musset, and did well—until he discovered cars and movies. Admits Paul, “I didn’t need a degree for either, so I didn’t work enough.”

As a result he failed the baccalaureate exam required for university entrance and went to work instead, first as a camera assistant on an unknown director’s first film, then as a director’s assistant on his father’s latest smash L’As des As (The Ace of Aces). “If automobile driving doesn’t work out, I’ll come back to cinema,” he says. “I’d like to direct, but that’s not until you’re around 40.”

Ironically, after Paul gave up on academics, Stephanie started studying with renewed interest. Last July she passed her baccalaureate from the Charles-de-Foucauld School in Neuilly, but decided on a fashion career instead of college. Those plans, of course, were delayed by Grace’s death. She began attending classes at the Fashion Design School in Paris in January but soon realized she was too far behind her class, and she has postponed school again. (Meanwhile brother Albert, 24, is in a bank training program at Morgan Guaranty in New York and was recently rumored to be engaged, first to Belgian Princess Astrid and then to Lady Helen Windsor, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kent.)

Despite their fame, Stephanie and Paul enjoy the same things as other teenagers in love. That includes visiting friends and watching movies (though usually in his dad’s video room). “My father taught me to live simply, as if we weren’t known,” says Paul. “That was the strongest point he made. My feet are on the ground—maybe too much, but they’re there.”

Still, the couple are pursued vigorously by the glamour-hungry paparazzi of Paris. Last winter they were hounded when Paul picked Stephanie up from school each day for lunch in a local cafe. A few months later they sparked a royal ruckus when they were spotted cuddling at a tennis tournament in Monaco. “That’s the disadvantage of being known and being with someone who’s known,” says Paul. “Photographers follow us wherever we go.” Once, when a pursuing photographer nearly provoked a car accident, Paul alighted and clobbered the offender in true Belmondo style.

“The less people talk about my relationship with Stephanie, the better it will be,” says Paul. “I live by the philosophy that with a lot of patience, you can get what you want.” Ultimately, that could be a serene life with Stephanie.